11 May 2024


Serena Keshavjee (Editor). The Art of Ectoplasm; Encounters with Winnipeg's Ghost Photographs. University of Manitoba Press, 2023.

Of all the phenomena of Spiritualism and mediumship, ectoplasm seems to me to be the most implausible, even ridiculous. The photographs recording the phenomenon are surely faked, and any supposed physical evidence is never really evidence of anything. And what has it got to do with the University of Manitoba?
The really important words in the title of this book are 'Art' and 'Winnipeg', and anyone looking for a scientific analysis of the physical phenomenon of ectoplasm will not find it here. The contributors to this volume include an artist whose work “connects to Indigenous epistemology”, an architect, a professor of art and architectural history, two archivists, a professor of community health sciences and a professor of cultural studies.

This is not an investigation of ectoplasm as a physical or quasi-physical phenomena, rather it is a study of a collection of records of a series of seances, the family behind the séances, and the way the collection itself has been used. It is also a family history. The family is the Hamilton family. Thomas Glendenning ('TG') Hamilton was a Winnipeg physician, president of the Manitoba Medical Association and a member of the Manitoba legislature. He seems to have been prompted into the field of psychical research by the death of his son Arthur at the age of three in the 1919 flu epidemic.

He set up a room in his house for the purpose of recording mediumistic phenomena in as objective and scientific manner as possible. Although probably considered crude in comparison with later academic experimental standards, it was well thought out and designed with banks of cameras and flash lights to record any apparitions. Hamilton was clear that his experiments, although perhaps prompted by a personal tragedy, would be conducted in an objective manner - he emphasised that he was not a Spiritualist, and for all his life was an active and prominent member of the Presbyterian church.

The séances, or as 'TG' regarded them experiments, were conducted two or three times a week and meticulously recorded in photographs and written records. They began in 1923 and carried on for over two decades. It is these records, the Hamilton Fonds* and the different ways in which people have accessed and used them which form the core subject of this book.

Ectoplasm and ideas about its origin, constitution and the manner in which it fits into beliefs about personal survival after death are described but not addressed or challenged. The book is a phenomenological study of the concept of ectoplasm rather than direct research inti the phenomenon. In her introduction editor Serena Keshavjee comments that “Academics tend to be more interested in discovering lost histories to better understand cultural trends than in judging alternative science and marginal religious movements.”

Archivist Dr Katie Oates looks at the work of Lilian Hamilton, T.H.'s widow, in collating the huge collection of written notes and photographs from the hundreds of seances, and adding her own commentary to the original reports. Oates sees this as a way of challenging the “male-normative approaches to psychical research”, and “instilling her albums emotion and intellect, while maintaining the rigour of her male contemporaries. Oates interprets the predominantly female mediums as being “object[s] of control under the scrutiny of the rational male observer” whereas earlier historians of séance-room phenomena have often seen the female mediums as being an agency to disrupt the perceived male-logic of the experimenters, and in some cases also being a means of reversing traditional class roles.

Mayer zu Erpen studied the Hamilton 'fonds' now deposited at the University of Manitoba, and in 2021 contributed an essay based around them to an essay competition organised by the Bigelow Institute for Consciousness Research, and name which will be familiar to Magonia readers from other contexts. His study of the documentation convinced zu Erpen that at least some of the evidence presented definite evidence for the survival of human personality after death, co-founding the Survival Research Institute of Canada in 1991.

He gives quite detailed accounts of the lives of individuals involved in the séances, carefully explaining their often significant roles in local society and academia. It is significant that none of these people appears to have experienced any critical backlash due to their involvement in such a contested subject, although some were prominent members of established churches and help other prominent social positions.

He concludes after much fence-sitting that “the Winnipeg teleplasmic manifestations were genuine” but qualifies this by adding “if the Hamilton teleplasms resulted from fraud, the no such thing as genuine ectoplasm exists”. That sounds suspiciously like still being on the fence to me.

A great deal of the book describes the way that the legacy of the Hamilton records has been used in ways not directly connected to psychical research. Shelly Sweeney describes the way they have been used as inspiration and source materiel by a wide range of artists in exhibitions in exhibitions and video projects.

The film-maker Susan MacWilliam worked in a temporary studio set up in the Library archives where she created a film, F-L-A-M-M-A-R-I-O-N, based around photographs of a séance conducted in 1931 where cut-out 'teleplasmic' letters spelling out the French astronomer and psychical researcher's name appeared suspended on the back of the medium's cabinet. This film was shown at the 2009 Venice Biennale, and subsequently at other locations worldwide.

Archivist Brian Hubner's chapter describes how the Hamilton collection “helped to make Winnipeg and unlikely centre of the paranormal”. Although the 'Fonds' were donated to the University of Manitoba Archives in 1979, little use seemed to have been made of them. One of the people resposnsible for changing this was Chris Rutowski, another name which will be very familiar to Magonia readers as a prominent Canadian ufologist and psychic researcher. His 1993 title Unnatural History: True Manitoba Mysteries seemed to promote a flood of books on the mysteries of Winnipeg and Manitoba, by now the Hamilton archives seem to be a regular feature of Canadian Halloween events.

As a curious side-note, Hubner points out that Winnipeg has its own potential Da Vinci Code drama. The Manitoba Provincial Legislature building was filled with Masonic and occult symbolism by the architect Frank Worthington Simon, a Mason trained in Paris. However although T.G. Hamilton was a member of the Legislature at the time the building was constructed no direct link between him and Simon has been found. Still, that should not put of any writer looking for a new line of occult hokum!

The presence of the archive and the use made of it by writers, journalists and film-makers has promoted Winnipeg as a centre of psychic activity in Canada. The city is now host to the usual ghost and occult tours, as well as being the location for a number movie and TV productions, some based on the Hamilton family and their archives. Hebner explains that it has shaped how the city is perceived and has “helped to cement the city's reputation as 'Weird Winnipeg'” Curiously this seems to have been predicted by Arthur Conan Doyle, who after visiting in 1923, wrote to Lillian Hamilton, thanking her for her hospitality and concluding “Winnipeg should be a psychic centre”

Murray Leeder, a media studies professor at the university of Manitoba discusses the cinematic depiction of ectoplasm, noting that as early as 1929 an attempt was made to film the creation of ectoplasm at one of the Hamilton's séances. Although a still from the film exists, and is reproduced in the book, the actual film, Leeder reports has “sadly vanished, like a piece of ectoplasm in its own right.”

Leeder gives an entertaining description of some serious and many very un-serious uses of ectoplasm in movies and popular culture, including as a censor-friendly way of indicating nudity. In a subsequent chapter editor Serena Keshavjee looks at other visual depictions of the phenomena, from séance room photos to recreations of the phenomena in media as varied as crotchet, sculpture, body-art and photographic and cinematographic re-enactment of actual incidents recorded in the Hamilton archives. These, although interesting as artistic representations of paranormal events serve only to highlight the radical unreality and artifice of the original phenomena.

This is basically a picture book, its text surrounds and is devoted to a series of the most remarkable and often disturbing photographs. It is almost a work of art in itself, although one that is occasionally in danger of being obscured by its academic apparatus. Clearly some of the contributors are finding ways of developing their own particular intellectual and political ideas through the medium of ectoplasm and dense thickets of academic language.

Yes, ectoplasm is ridiculous, it is amazing how many serious, intelligent people were taken in by it. But in its heyday, between the twentieth centuries two great eras of slaughter it was something that found its own psychical evolutionary niche. You will not really learn anything about the nature of ectoplasm itself in this book, but you will learn a lot about the world that created it, and the world which it, in its turn, created. And why Winnipeg is so weird.
  • John Rimmer

* FONDS: In archival science, a 'fonds' is a group of documents and other materials that share the same origin and that have occurred naturally as an outgrowth of the daily workings of an agency, individual, or organization (Wikipedia). Curiously in nearly 50 years of working in libraries and archives I have never come across this word before. Truly, you learn something every day!

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